Posts Tagged ‘Ukraine’

One of my privileges is to volunteer with an organization whose mission is to train Ukrainian mental health workers. That work is doubly hard in a time of war. In addition to everything else that a counselor must routinely address, there are war-related trauma, stress, grief and fear. But that is in no way limited to clients.

The counselors themselves are not insulated from the devastation of war. Like military chaplains, they share the same context as those whom they serve. To do this, they must find ways to keep heart and soul together. Unless they do, how else can they be of help to others?

One of my Ukrainian friends told the story of sharing in a Ukrainian celebration of the New Year, full of merriment, only to have it followed by the bombing of the apartment complex that killed scores of men, women and children. That shock, that sense of destruction, hovers over everything they do.

After a long Zoom call, interpreted from Ukrainian to English, my Ukrainian friend said, “Думаю, я ще раз прочитаю Книгу Йова.” (I think I will read the Book of Job again.)

Indeed. What better? This parabolic Biblical classic wrestles with universal questions of suffering, supposed causes, and the role, if discernable, of the Source of all that is. And that’s what we talked about.

The first, most native reading probably speaks most directly: People suffer. They suffer a lot. At the worst, everything that matters can be taken from them. Most surely, this.

And then come questions of causation. In the story, well-meaning friends show up to bring counsel and consolation. Their observations are predictable: You must have done something to deserve this. Fess up, Job, and repent. But as the story lays out from the beginning, Job was a righteous person, a good person who suffered greatly. Job knows this and informs his friends of the same. What the Book of Job is doing through this dialogue between Job and his friends is to make an argument. Actually an argument with other parts of the Bible that state or imply that all suffering is the result of punishment for sin. Not so, says Job. Not by a long shot. In fact, the story itself is a refutation of that understanding. Good people suffer. Our suffering is not correlated to our moral lives, except as consequences flow from intentions and behavior. We are not punished for our sins, though perhaps by them.

After addressing that little misconception of suffering, the story shifts to Job’s anguish before God. In the same way that his friends accused Job of moral failings, now Job begins to accuse God. After all, if God is all-powerful and this has happened, isn’t God culpable? Job puts God on the witness stand. Job the prosecutor shakes his indignant fist. Why? An accounting, please!

Anyone who has shared in suffering to any degree knows this bitter taste in the mouth. Someone deserves my bile. How about appealing my case to a higher court? But wait, do I have a God who is a master puppeteer, arranging this event and that, the cause of all things good and bad? To what degree is God actually involved in historical life? Other than being the creative source of all things? What do we mean when we say God “acts” in the world?

Before those little theological questions are resolved, the story shifts again. This time the silent Presence roars out of the spinning whirlwind, throwing Job into the witness stand. Now Job shall give an accounting. And the Prosecutor asks one question in many iterations: “Where were you when I created the foundations of the world?”

Well, nowhere. That’s where I was. I was nowhere, a no-thing.

Job shuts up.

And that’s where the story ends, even though later generations tried to repair it by adding a happy ending. It ends with muted Job standing before a mystery he cannot begin to understand or explain. And the many dimensions of suffering are left spinning in that whirlwind.

My Ukrainian friends know suffering. It comes not as a punishment for sins committed. However much we may analyze causes and solutions from a geopolitical perspective, there are no ultimate, eternal explanations available. None except a ponderous silence before suffering and the awareness that we are too tiny and short-lived to venture answers in the midst of infinite time and space.

I was knee-deep in presenting a class on the life and teachings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer when I read the article: “War and the Church in Ukraine: A Pastor Describes Ministering in Wartime Bucha and Kyiv” (Plough Quarterly, Summer 2022, 12-14) The parallels were striking, even if they were not exact. Bonhoeffer addressed the fascism and heresy of his own country in the rise of the 3rd Reich during WW II and Ukraine is suffering from an attack by a neighboring adversary. In Bonhoeffer’s case, he dared critique the evil of the Nazi regime, confront its theological heresy, form alternative underground church structures, and engage in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. In the case of Ivan Rusyn, president of the Ukrainian Evangelical Theological Seminary in Kyiv, he had to decide whether to flee over the border to safety or stay and minister to his people. On that score, Bonhoeffer and Rusyn are exactly on par: Rather than flee, they both stayed.

Bonhoeffer, of course, paid the ultimate price for his return to Germany, almost certain imprisonment, and possible execution. Ivan Rusyn returned with the knowledge that extreme danger awaited him. They both went anyway.

Another parallel between the two became perfectly clear: The way in which “ethics” are transformed, or seen differently, against the backdrop of the extreme chaos of war, especially a war born of an evil adversary. Bonhoeffer came to the conclusion that the weight of the concrete moment places a moral demand on the person of faith, a demand that might be seen differently in in different times. For Dietrich, the decision to participate in a plot to eliminate Hitler was hard, but clear: One must die so that the many might live. Ethics, then, cannot be constructed in an ivory tower outside of the struggle of history. They must emerge in the thick of living in the world.

In the same way, Rusyn described the Ukrainian struggle of peacemaking in terms of overcoming evil in order to create peace. In his own words:

“I used to be a pacifist. When I was called up, I chose alternative national service. Now I believe that only the nation that has known the horror of war has the right to speak about pacifism. My theology has been changed. For me, peace-making is not a passive thing anymore, an ability to absorb and embrace everything. No, it is very active – action in order to stop violence…When you compare the size of Russia and Ukraine, you will see that we are fighting a giant. The only hope we have is God. So, yes, I do pray. I don’t pray about peace, I pray about victory. Peace will be an outcome of victory. Unfortunately, with Russia, there will be no peace without victory.”

Then there was the Barmen Declaration, penned primarily by Karl Barth and embraced by Bonhoeffer and others of the Confessing Church. Dietrich’s objections to Barmen had to do with the omission of statements condemning the persecution of the Jews. But otherwise, especially as regards the Christian’s ultimate loyalty and worship of God as opposed to political or national idols, Bonhoeffer was in complete solidarity. We have but one Lord. The church is not a functionary of the state.

In Rusyn we also have a parallel to Barmen: “This is about our ultimate loyalty. Worship has political resonance. Whom do we worship? The gospel is so powerful that it transforms every area of our life. We are not just waiting for evacuation to heaven. If we are Christians, we have to have an impact. Yes, we are not of this world, but we are in this world for the sake of this world. We have to be engaged if we want to be a true church. For me it was very important that I remain here with my people. If I evacuate before everybody else, what kind of pastor am I?”

Bonhoeffer couldn’t have said it any better. Though he did say it in so many words. They both have. And their witness lives on in the debris, through the suffering, and by faithful striving in the world.